Without Fear or Favor by Robert K. Tanenbaum (Crime/Courtroom Thriller, 2017).
I found this, the 29th book in the series about New York City DA Butch Karp and his wife Marlene, to be a major disappointment. In fact, it makes something of a sour mockery of its own title. It’s a work of paranoid fear as well as heavyhanded favor.
The credited author is a highly distinguished and successful prosecutor and professor of criminology in real life, and this series has produced a number of best-selling novels. Given his background, it was absolutely no surprise that this book had a pronounced pro-police and conservative attitude. But what shocked me was what a blatantly and crudely stacked deck of cardboard characters, cliches and stereotypes Tanenbaum (or whoever is his current ghostwriter) stuffs into what could’ve/should’ve been a tense and exciting, somewhat topical thriller.
Of course in any thriller you need assorted villians for your heroes to do battle with. Anthony Johnson, the self-styled black revolutionary, is indeed a miserable and murderous cop-killer, and yes, a virulent racist in his own right. He preys on injustices real (but according to this book, wildly overstated) and imagined for his own sick purposes. And there are certainly race-baiting politicians/activists, dishonest members of the media and so forth. But the whole of this book delivers its message with zero subtley and nuance. Every person who evidences even the slightest inclination to question police behavior here is either a consciously dishonest troublemaker, a liberal idiot or (most likely) both. Literally no-one who would question police tactics or motives is shown to have the slightest sincerity or even good intentions.
On the other hand, the police and prosecutors are, on the whole, wonderful and upright people. Oh, yes, we’re thrown a bone on the sidelines, as three token racist/vigilante cops plot stupid yet savage mischief and are taken down by our flawless heroes.
The notion is that the cops are burdened with only a few “bad apples” while most are decent (a defensible position in itself), but (on the otherhand) anyone–absolutely anyone–who views the police with anything less than adoring ardor is purely evil (or at least profoundly misguided and willfully ignorant).
The inherent demagoguery in that barely needs mentioning.
Yet the book itself clashes with its own stacked-deck narrative, in that DA Karp and his support wife have an ethically dubious near-alliance with a fanatical preacher turned mass murderer who rules a secret mini-society of the homeless and abandoned under the city streets. This wacko’s knife-wielding exploits are kept quiet and excused by our allegedly upright DA ’cause he only slaughters nasty folks who are in one way or another overlooked by the conventional justice system. This fanciful individual could provide a welcome sense of moral ambiguity if it was better explored–perhaps it is eslewhere in this massve series. But here, it’s more or less shrugged off as evil-doers getting some sort of deus ex machina comeupance.
Further, these books give equal billing to Butch and his wife. This makes sense in other entries in the series, where Marlene reportedly does far more than here and their life as a couple plays a significant role. I’ve seen comments from loyal series readers who complained there simply wasn’t enough of her here.
Well, something was sure missing!
In sheer writing terms, the novel comes burdened with some repetitive musings and a few characters with jarringly bizarre names. Karp’s receptionist is one Darla Milquetoast. Just plain freaky name–intended as comic relief, perhaps? Yet she isn’t funny. In fcat, she serves no real purpose here that I can see, in plot or any other terms.
Far more annoying/distracting is the troublemaking opportunist of a ‘community activist’–black Baptist minister Hussein Mufti. Run that name through your head a bit and explain to me how you arrive at a BAPTIST MINISTER (black or otherwise) sporting an explicitly Islamic name?
All told, I was frankly bewildered. How did this series achieve any status if this was the level of storytelling throughout?
In doing background for this review, I believe I found a likely answer. My above crack about ghostwriters was no mere random putdown at Tanenbaum’s expense. His first (non-series) books were nonfiction studies of actual cases he was either part of or at least had good knowledge of. In each he had an experienced co-author, who was duly credited. There’s no shame in that. Following these successes, he decided to try his hand with fiction, the Butch/Marline series was a result.
But here, it was claimed that Tannebaum was flying solo–until his cousin, Michael Gruber, revealed in 2003 that he had been ghostwriting the series for 16 years. This admission (and Gruber’s successful emergence as a novelist in his own right) ended their collaboration. Since then, the ‘Tanenbaum’ books that have followed have been somewhat uneven–some considered good, others not. Seems he still hasn’t found someone who can consistently come up to Gruber’s standard (whether that is Mr. Tanenbaum himself or some new, willingly anonymous hack).
Either way, this particular book is (as stated above) a major disappointment.